An Antidote to Chaos
“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with scepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.”
Peterson is one of the most interesting individuals in the world, and he has written a book to match. 12 Rules for Life is self-help of sorts, but dances between philosophical and theological abstraction and grounded concretion through his wit, quirk and anecdote. He writes enthrallingly well (clashing with Doidge’s horribly written foreword) and, surprisingly, Peterson is funny.
Trying to figure out exactly what is going on in this book is a harder task than expected. Trigger warning; lots of “philosophy” ahead, apologies (this is by far my most wordy review so far). I think the book is a pragmatic war on Nihilism. It is odd, therefore, that Peterson and Nietzsche have so much in common. (Whether or not Nietzsche really was a Nihilist is out of my depth; I am not a Nietzschean scholar, and Nietzsche irritatingly throws up an interpretative smoke screen to thwart clarity and to sound profound.) Peterson delights in drawing from an eye-watering breadth of sources, but in true Nietzschean fashion, provides somewhat dubious interpretations at times. However, this philosopher (?) is such a favourite of Peterson’s citation-wise that he must be aware of this similarity. Maybe there is something in that.
The above matters so much because it is less than clear what grounds 12 Rules for Life. Again and again, although usually not explicitly mentioned, it is this very question of creating meaning ex nihilo that is addressed. Peterson unequivocally denies the possibility of this, and would viciously deny (I think…) being dubbed an Existentialist; creating meaning in the face of an indifferent universe. But having said this, one never really gets the sense that Peterson can bring himself to believe in objective meaning. So what basis is there really for something different to what was attempted by the Existentialists? More on this later.
Instead, what ultimately seems to be on offer in 12 Rules for Life is a foundation-less (other than the experiential moral horror of suffering) but attractive manual for flourishing in the world that we find ourselves in; a rebellion against Nihilist living. And because of that, Peterson appears to be more Aristotelian than anything.
So where is Jesus in all of this? Aside from the true but snide “everywhere”, it becomes particularly apparent when it comes to Peterson’s Bible-handling. It is variable. Although often better than most non-Christian critics, he often says true things but without regard for context and with misguided emphasis (he admits in characteristic humility that he does not get grace). He is refreshingly hungry for truth, and at times agonisingly close to grappling correctly with Scripture (he seems more excited by the Bible than any of the other sources he handles). Indeed, occasionally his foggy understanding of Christianity is usurped by blinding brilliance as he propounds unpopular doctrines earnestly and winsomely. Original sin, inherited sin, God’s holiness, hope and judgement all get this treatment. In many ways Peterson does evidential apologetics for us.
There is also much practical wisdom that the follower of Jesus can get from 12 Rules for Life, and this is not to be despised merely because it does not come from a Christian source. There is a really sobering call to tell the truth and to actively do something about injustice regardless of the conflict required. It remains firmly connected to the wisdom of the past as Peterson is unashamed to learn from the dead. The reader will be unable to ignore that she is responsible.
Finally, let us return to Peterson’s grounding for all of this. His desire not to be a Nihilist causes him to seemingly deify a generic concept of “Being” to occupy his need for some kind of objective meaning. But this is not persuasive, and, more importantly, it is not personal. And if it is not personal then it can fall foul of Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology; man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this god. Peterson cannot effectively ground his rules, and thus despite the wisdom, entertainment value and motivational impact of them, they do nothing to address one of the few subjects that 12 Rules for Life does not deal thoroughly with; death.